July 22, 2020

Attaining Velocity in the Age of Disruption: A Conversation with Ajaz Ahmed

An aura of boundless optimism surrounds Ajaz Ahmed, the CEO and founder of AKQA, the pioneering agency with the declared intention of creating the future through compelling digital services and products. And with a suite of award-winning work for clients such as Nike, AKQA certainly lives up to their billing.

We sat down with Ajaz, the author of Velocity and Limitless, to talk about how AKQA has built a culture that harnesses the energy of its employees; how doing good should be the guiding philosophy of every company; and how innovation, creativity and diversity are the lifeblood of businesses that inspire change. Ajaz also writes about the ideas that motivate him at the AKQA website.

Ajaz’s Key Takeaways:

  • Keep learning. Continuously stimulate your mind with knowledge and push your body through physical challenges.
  • Think of business as a force for good. All organisations have a responsibility to people and the planet. Focus efforts on the positive impact your endeavours will have on your team, customers and community.
  • Leadership is about creating leaders. You should think of everyone as a Chief People Officer who’s encouraged to contribute to other’s development. Take the long-term view, nurture and grow talent, be generous and a good listener.
  • Diversity of mindset matters. Innovation and creativity flow from thinking differently. Ensure that teams have a mixture of different perspectives and backgrounds.

What attracted you to digital innovation?

A love of architecture, technology and nature drew me to the career I have today. It was definitely architecture and nature that got me started on this journey. When I was 12 years old I lived across the road from the world’s third largest software company, and I fell in love with their building that was also beautifully landscaped. I pestered them for a job because I wanted to work in that building and they eventually let me work for them during school holidays. That’s where I learnt about software, technology and communications.

Today, our goal with AKQA is to create a team that produces influential work and is the kind of place we’ve always dreamed of working at, drawing together experiences and influences from the organisations and people around the world, past and present, that have inspired us.

Where did you develop the self-belief to strike out on your own?

Every worthwhile and enjoyable endeavour is done as a team so I’ve always thought of myself as being part of a team.

“The conventional picture of one individual getting all the credit is merely a romantic one. We all stand on the shoulders of giants. The team is the hero, not the individual. We can make great strides together.”

What lies behind your success as an entrepreneur? What are the skills that have helped you get to where you are today?

It’s important to recognise the talent within the team and coach them to shine through their work. While the foundations and philosophy of AKQA is firm, we’re adaptive and sensitive to changes in the business environment and society more broadly. We encourage experiments across our network and we’ve always managed the company responsibly when it comes to finances and operations. We have a set of beliefs and core values.

“We believe if we have a happy, serene environment then everything turns out better because the passion goes into the work. That’s why we put so much emphasis on our company culture.”

When hiring people attitude is more important than experience. You can always learn to be better at your craft, you can always gain experience, you can refine your technique. But this needs an appetite and attitude that’s all about continual improvement.

“AKQA is a business where people need to be vibrant and resilient.”

If you can't tolerate the honest feedback it takes to make your work better and if you can’t suffer failures and setbacks, then we’re probably not the right business for you.

Early on, we also understood two truths that we continue to believe in today. The first is that technology will shape culture. The second is the need for professionals to help organisations navigate this landscape in a way that the productivity of their investments is amplified. That’s why we focus on the positive impact our work is having.

“Every employee in our business is thought of as a Chief People Officer — everyone on our team is encouraged to contribute to the career development of their colleagues and help create culturally defining moments.”

Does business have a role to play in doing good?

Everything a business does has a responsibility to people, the planet, the environment and the species we share this earth with. With the rapid evolution and increasing accessibility of technology, there’s never been a better time to make meaningful change for communities that need it around the world.

“Collectively the planet has enough knowledge, resources and money to ensure a good standard of progressive education, healthcare and sustainability for everyone.”

What’s been your best learning experience so far?

You have to stay hungry and you have to maintain a perpetual outlook of apprenticeship — otherwise you go stale. AKQA is about the duality of what may first appear to be opposing forces.

We’re about exploration and pushing the limits; but we’re also about good engineering and execution. We’re about youth and energy; but we’re counterbalanced by maturity and experience. We’re about embracing what’s cutting-edge and state of the art; but we’ve never forgotten our origins. What this means is that we’re open to drawing upon outside influences beyond the narrow confines of one industry.

What attributes do you look for when hiring?

We hire people for what they can teach — not just what they can learn from us. A recruitment firm recently did a survey across our team to discover the main reasons why people join AKQA. They included our reputation for producing excellent work, as well as the opportunity to do work that will touch millions. In terms of work environment, they appreciated that everyone in the company matters and will be listened to, as well as the absence of dramatics involved in day-to-day work.

“There’s a lack of egos at AKQA. The work has to speak for itself.”

The attraction for our employees is our continued ambition along with our strong embedded culture that is more similar to a university than it is a corporation. Our leaders are humble

“Although change is at the heart of our company and our clients’ businesses, we have four perennial founding values: Innovation, Service, Quality and Thought.”

We define Innovation as continually pushing the boundaries — taking our clients and customers where they want to go before they know they want to go there. Service is trust and teamwork. Quality refers to the highest professional standards, while Thought involves recommending the best solutions through a rigorous thinking process.§

What would you include on your learning playlist?

Other than sport, reading and learning is my greatest source of inspiration. If a story, an idea or a thought is articulated in a beautiful way, then it elevates my soul. My favourite writer is Herman Hesse, but in terms of contemporary writers, my favourite is Donna Tartt, who wrote The Goldfinch. In our field it’s important to have broad cultural reference points across many artistic and scientific fields to offer something distinctive, original and refreshing.

“I travel and aim to have conversations with as many people from different backgrounds and cultures as I can.”

Great leadership – what does it look like to you?

Leadership is the ability to create leaders. Your legacy is simply the impact we have on the people we meet. There are thousands of books written about leadership, but it probably comes down to just one idea: being a decent human being.

“There’s another lesson in management that’s equally simple. Make a short list of all things done to you that you abhorred, and don’t ever do them to others. Then make another list of things done to you that you loved, and do them to others always.”

What does the future hold for digital innovation?

While cognitive science will eventually be more effective than human beings in finance, law, manufacturing, construction and other areas, the appetite for adventure is one of the reasons why we say that the most powerful force in the universe isn’t technology, it’s imagination.

“Humans possess the ingenuity, spirit and courage to keep pushing the boundaries of what’s possible. There’s a lot we can do to make this planet better, as well as exploring and inhabiting new terrains and worlds”

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